The 1934 Textile Strike: A Watershed Moment in the American Class Struggle

In September 1934, an estimated 500,000 textile mill workers walked off the job throughout the South, Mid-Atlantic, and New England. At the time, it was the most extensive strike the US had seen and remains one of the largest in US history. This was one of four major strikes that occurred in 1934. Unlike its counterparts, however, the textile strike was a massive defeat, drowned in blood by the mill owners and state governments. Several factors contributed to this defeat, including the mistaken tactics of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) leaders, the ineffectiveness of the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the ability of the bosses to wait out the strike. Despite the defeat, the 1934 Textile Strike demonstrates the willingness of workers to sacrifice and their ability to self-organize.

Before the 1900s, textile mills were located predominantly in the Northeast. Due to the conditions in the South after the Civil War, mill owners began moving the industry south to take advantage of the newly unemployed, who were willing to work for less than northern workers. By the early 1930s, nearly 70% of all textile production had moved to the South. The failure of the cotton crop in 1926 pushed even more poor whites off their farms and into the towns. The textile mill owners were waiting with open arms, ready to hire more workers at cheaper wages, giving those from the farms and mountains a house with running water and electricity in the company-owned mill village.

Cotton mill spinners Catawba Newton North Carolina Library of Congress
By the early 1930s, nearly 70% of all textile production had moved to the South. / Image: public domain

But life in the mill village was not all sunshine and modernity, and the workers tended to work from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. While many considered it better than life on the farm, they were considered “white trash” and “lint heads” by other industrial workers and farmers. Their lives were strictly controlled by the boss. Many families were still so poor that children were forced out of school and into the factory as soon as they were old enough to work.

Children still in school would be sent to class barefoot without lunch. The mill owners praised themselves for charging low or no rent to the workers, providing free coal and electricity in many places while keeping these families in debt. Many would owe their entire paycheck to the company or the company store by the end of each week, leaving them in a constant cycle of debt. Even behavior and day-to-day activities were controlled by the boss. Workers could be laid off for using too much toilet paper, drinking alcohol, not going to church, or any conduct deemed by the boss as “immoral.” Once laid off, the workers would be thrown out of their houses onto the streets with no money and no place to go.

Economic slowdown and the Great Depression

These conditions were felt even more acutely as a major economic crisis loomed. The economy was declining in 1925 before the 1929 crash officially began the Great Depression. Workers were desperate for jobs. Northern workers were migrating south, joining locals in lines of 30–40 people outside of factories, hoping to get picked for a job each day. Production needs took a hit as a result of the Depression as well, causing factories to hire workers for just 2–3 days per week.

Even as demand and production began to improve, conditions remained the same. From the beginning of the crisis, managers began to introduce “stretch outs.” This meant paying reduced wages via “piece rates,” limiting breaks, and hiring more supervisors to discipline workers to speed up production. Bosses were forced by the acute crisis to squeeze as much surplus value out of the workers’ labor power as was humanly possible. Mill owners were forced into such practices, not merely because of greed or thirst for profits, but just to stay in business.

Unemployed line Great Depression public domain
Many towns with three mills saw two of them shuttered. Beyond discipline and increased hours with lower pay, workers began to run three jobs when they used to run one. / Image: public domain

Many towns with three mills saw two of them shuttered. Beyond discipline and increased hours with lower pay, workers began to run three jobs when they used to run one. Leading up to 1934, workers often worked 55 to 60 hours per week, bringing home less than $10. This was part of a scientific method of managing factories that was predominant at the time and was sharpened by the crisis. But the workers did not take this lying down. As one former mill worker put it, “When you get hungry enough, and your baby starts crying, you fight back, and that’s what we did.”

The first serious sign of this discontent emerged in 1929, well before the introduction of FDR’s “reforms” and section 7a of the Textile Code. The textile industry experienced waves of strikes, from wool workers in New England, silk weavers in New Jersey, and mill workers in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Textile workers in South Carolina spontaneously walked off the job 80 times that year. Some of these strikes succeeded, mainly in the North, and were often limited to union recognition, but most failed.

One of the more notable strikes of 1929 was the Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. During this strike, workers protested poor working conditions and pay. They were members of the National Textile Workers’ Union, a union organized by the Communist Party USA, during the 1929–1934 period of the ultraleft trade union policy to create “red unions,” separate from the traditional unions affiliated to the AFL. Despite this incorrect policy, they organized across the whole textile industry, including Black and white workers. This strike ended after the brutal repression of the workers and the killing of a pregnant worker and communist organizer. In July 1934, shortly before the general strike was called, around 20 unionized textile mills in Alabama, encompassing 20,000 workers, went out on strike for a 30-hour workweek, union recognition, and reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. These examples show that the class struggle was rising in the textile industry and beyond.

Failure of New Deal policies

Loray Mill 1929 Strike Gastonia State Archives of North Carolina
One notable strike of 1929 was the Loray Mill strike, organized by members of the National Textile Workers’ Union and the Communist Party USA. / Image: State Archives of North Carolina, Flickr

In response to this growing wave of class struggle, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) desperately sought a way to appease the masses and pull the US out of the Depression. One such effort was the creation of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) passed in June 1933, which in turn created the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The purpose of this agency was to try to stimulate the economy by putting America back to work.

The NRA immediately set out to create codes of standard labor practices for specific industries, including a $0.25 per hour minimum wage for mill workers, instead of the usual $0.17. It also introduced the 40-hour work week, made it illegal for children under 16 to work in the factory, created health and safety rules, and introduced Section 7a, which gave workers the right to organize and select their representatives without employer interference. Hundreds of workers would write to the NRA and FDR personally to report their workplaces for violating these codes. But their complaints fell on deaf ears.

The Cotton Textile Board, formed to create the Textile Code, encourage competition, regulate prices, and prevent overproduction, was made up mostly of mill owners. As a result, more often than not, the regulations barely scratched the surface of the needs of the workers, and the bosses could easily find ways around them. The minimum wage set for workers was turned into the maximum wage any worker could earn, and thousands of workers were laid off.

Despite the code, mill owners refused to negotiate or recognize any form of worker representation. The NRA lacked the resources to follow up with the enormous number of complaints received. They replied that they would investigate these violations but lacked the authority to enforce the codes. It took months before the first hearing took place, and it concluded with no real consequences for the bosses. The capitalists thought they could get away with this hollow promise of reform without enacting any change, thus pulling the wool over the eyes of the workers, particularly in the South. But this betrayal only fueled the already burning fire of class struggle.

The textile workers fight back

With no help from the NRA, workers began to pour into the trade unions. Tens of thousands of textile workers in the South joined the United Textile Workers of America (UTW), which was affiliated to the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Membership in the UTW exploded from 15,000 in February 1933 to 250,000 in June 1934. Owners and management immediately reacted to this influx of unionized workers. In Cherokee, North Carolina, bosses tore down posters for union meetings. Other mill owners would forbid their property from being used for union meetings, so many workers built their own union halls. Bosses would watch these meetings, firing en masse any workers thought to be part of unionizing efforts.

In a rush to ensure the working class did not move without it, the UTW convention in August 1934 hastily called for a strike of textile mill workers. The union promised full support but lacked the necessary time to properly plan and prepare for the strike. It lacked the staff and finances for a lengthy battle. They only gave the strike a system of volunteer organizers sent to sign people up for the union and a charter to affiliate to the UTW.

Textile Workers Strike 1934 Labor Day
Tens of thousands of textile workers in the South joined the UTW. Membership in the union exploded from 15,000 in February 1933 to 250,000 in June 1934. / Image: public domain

However, once the pressure builds up sufficiently, workers will move with or without the permission of their leaders. So, on September 3, 1934, 10,000 workers went on strike and marched to celebrate Labor Day in Gastonia, North Carolina. The next day, they were joined by 20,000 more workers, and the movement continued to spread throughout the whole Southeast and into the Northeast. Between 400,000 and 500,000 workers were out on strike by mid-September for better working conditions and union recognition. Other than war, US history had no precedent for such a mass mobilization. The mood described by participating workers was one of hope and of being a part of something bigger than themselves, part of a movement for real change.

Workers quickly organized themselves, creating “flying squadrons” to go from mill to mill and bring out more workers, sign them up to the union, and continue creating even more squads. Tensions only increased between the workers on strike and the scabs who took their place in the mill. Flyers were posted in local papers with slogans like “Don’t scab. It’s now or never.”

The strike was not all bliss, though. After a week or so without a paycheck, families began to run out of food. Groups of workers would go to stores and union meetings for donations, but there was little help to be found since other workers were barely surviving themselves. Local ministers were openly against the strike, cutting off a traditional source of donations and charity. Catholic and Jewish congregations, on the other hand, mostly stood by the striking workers, providing what support they could.

Strike wave repressed

Retribution from the bosses came swiftly and brutally. As soon as the workers went out on strike, South Carolina Governor Ibra Charles Blackwood deputized the state’s mayors, sheriffs, peace officers, and “every good citizen” to maintain order and dispatched the National Guard with orders to kill any demonstrators who tried to enter the mills. On September 5, Governor Ehringhous of North Carolina followed suit, with the governors of Maine and Rhode Island following soon as well. Even more extreme was the Governor of Georgia, Eugene Talmadge, who declared martial law and ordered all picketers arrested and imprisoned at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, a former World War I prisoner of war camp, pending trial by a military tribunal on charges of treason, insurrection, riot, etc.

Greenville South Carolina Martial Law 1934
The legal precedent for calling out the National Guard was that of keeping the peace and preventing riots, but the workers were unarmed. / Image: public domain

Repression on behalf of the mill owners, with full support from state governments, turned this phenomenal strike into a massacre. The legal precedent for calling out the National Guard was that of keeping the peace and preventing riots, but the workers were unarmed. The National Guard is just one tool of the state, used for intimidation and safeguarding bourgeois private property. Peaceful workers were met with poorly trained National Guardsmen, hired thugs, and armed scabs. Mill owners convinced non-strikers in the affected areas to back them with the classic claim that the strike was instigated by outsiders, foreigners, and union agitators, who had coerced their employees into such action.

Many strikers were killed before the strike was defeated. In Belmont, North Carolina, the National Guard pursued one striker into his home and stabbed him to death. Three strikers in Georgia were shot and killed, along with one in Rhode Island. Hundreds were beaten and imprisoned. The most brutal of these incidents was at the Chiquola Mill in Honea Path, South Carolina. There, mill superintendent JD Beacham, who was also the mayor, ordered local police and 100 private guards to open fire on workers gathered outside the mill to protest.

As soon as the shooting began, protesters began to run away, but this did not stop the guards. In the end, seven workers were shot and killed, six of them shot in the back as they ran away. One man across the street was shot five times, twice in the back. Workers understood the mill owners had tried to “murder to kill the union,” as one former worker put it. Around 10,000 workers came out to the funeral of those killed at the Chiquola Mill. The victims were not allowed to have their funeral in the church and were buried under an oak tree instead of in the church graveyard among their loved ones.

Chiquola Mill Funeral
Around 10,000 workers came out to the funeral of the seven shot and killed at the Chiquola Mill. / Image: public domain

Just three weeks after the strike began, the workers were forced off the picket line. Despite the decline in production due to the strike, the bosses were determined to wait it out and could afford to do so due to the overproduction of textiles in the period leading up to the strike. On September 22, the UTW officially called off the strike and declared it a victory. They claimed the workers had won points and that the strike’s impact would have positive effects, including legislation backed by FDR, which was supposed to protect striking workers, ensuring they would get their jobs back.

However, none of these promises came to fruition in practice. Mill owners across the South ignored the order to allow all the strikers back to work, blacklisting them from getting jobs at other mills. Hundreds and thousands were not reemployed and were left without homes or means of survival. Among those who were hired back, many bosses required them to sign a letter promising they would never mention, much less join, the union, laying off those who refused to sign. In many areas, the union would not be mentioned again for a long time. The strike was not taught in schools, and many workers feared destitution. A traumatized hush swept over these working-class communities.

Lessons of the strike

Many lessons can be learned from the 1934 Textile Strike. The AFL leaders were not communists or socialists. Their framework was based on accepting the limitations of capitalist legality, and they had many illusions in the Roosevelt government. The strike could have been won if the AFL leadership had learned from the Trotskyists who led the Minneapolis Teamsters strike that same year.

For example, the strike’s timing should have coincided with a shortage, not an abundance of textile stockpiles. This would have put more pressure on the bosses from the beginning. In addition, all the major centers of the strikes should have had headquarters, where workers could discuss politics, strategy, and tactics and prepare necessary self-defense. Given the depth of the Depression, more active efforts should have been made to build solidarity with other desperate and angry workers in the region and across the country.

Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934
The strike could have been won if the AFL leadership had learned from the Trotskyists who led the Minneapolis Teamsters strike that same year. / Image: public domain

Another critical factor in the strike was the question of racism and Jim Crow segregation. American capitalism actively pushes racism to divide and weaken the working class. This should have been addressed openly, making it clear that the struggle could only be won based on unity and the fight against racism. This would have strengthened the striking workers and increased their support among the Black population in the South.

While most textile workers were poor whites, Blacks were hired as manual laborers, forbidden from running any machines. At the time, Black workers lived in segregated sections, forced to stay in those areas, remaining separate from the white workers in everyday life. This important layer of workers was left out of the Textile Code. Leading up to the strike, no Black workers were asked to join, and many feared being lynched if they participated. It was claimed there were not enough Black workers to warrant unionizing efforts among them, but this was a thin veil covering the racist outlook that permeated the AFL at the time.

As a result of this defeat, the union would get a bad reputation over the next period in the South. The UTW had failed to keep its promise of full support. Then, once defeated, with thousands being blacklisted, it proclaimed the strike a victory. In reality, it was a clear and devastating setback with no substantive gains made. While some remained true to the union, most workers acutely felt this betrayal. As a result, the union disintegrated in the South, and all efforts after 1934 had to begin almost from scratch. People feared the union, having seen its empty promises and betrayals stained in the workers’ blood.

The 1934 Textile Strike also exposed the ineffectiveness of FDR’s “New Deal” policies. The NRA failed the workers, and in May 1935, it was overturned by the Supreme Court. Two months later, FDR signed the National Labor Relations Act, better known as the Wagner Act, which more firmly established legal rights to union representation. Some claim the New Deal legislation gave the workers the courage to go on strike, but this is clearly not true. The strike wave had struck fear into the establishment, and it was desperate to save American capitalism from revolution. This and this alone produced the Wagner Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

Franklin D Roosevelt public domain
The 1934 Textile Strike also exposed the ineffectiveness of FDR’s “New Deal” policies. / Image: public domain

The untapped potential of the working class

Despite the policies of the AFL leaders, the workers organized themselves. Workers do not need to be told their wages are low and conditions horrendous—they need to be shown a way forward. In the South, workers with little or no experience self-organized into flying squadrons to promote participation. However, bravery and instinct are not enough to secure victory in a strike—or a revolution.

The working class needs leaders who will take the fight to the end and implement strategies proven effective over the last 150 years of class struggle. Such leaders would promote maximum unity, uniting white, Black, Latino, and Asian workers across all industries to shut down production. This would bring the economy to its knees, forcing the hand of the bourgeoisie as a whole.

The fight would not stop there, however. Mere reforms are not the goal and are never sufficient; capitalism cannot be reformed out of crisis or into socialism. Revolutionary Marxists must patiently explain that to overthrow capitalism as a whole, class-independent political struggle is also necessary. Only through a workers’ government and workers’ democracy can socialism be established.

Despite its many martyrs and demoralizing result, the 1934 Textile Strike was not a total loss. By learning from the living history of the class struggle, both its victories and defeats, we can build a revolutionary leadership trusted by the working class and ensure the coming waves of revolutionary action in the US succeed in overthrowing capitalism for good.

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!